Monday, July 12, 2010

Edgar Buchanan: the frontier dentist who played one on TV

The character actor Edgar Buchanan (1903-1979) was widely recognized by American audiences from the 1940s through the 1970s, gaining fame with his roles in scores of Hollywood Westerns and the long-running television series Petticoat Junction. Several movies featured Buchanan as a frontier dentist; one such film was Texas (1941), in which Buchanan played Doc Thorpe in an ensemble cast that included William Holden, Glenn Ford, and Claire Trevor. When the movie opened, "practicing dentists throughout the country responded appreciatively," according to Arden and Joan Christen, authors of a recent article about Buchanan in the Journal of the history of dentistry (2001 July; 49(2):57-61).

Buchanan's portrayal of the dentist Doc Thorpe was imbued with vivid realism for the simple reason that Buchanan was, in fact, a dentist. Had been since 1928, actually, when he graduated--you guessed it--from the North Pacific Dental College (now called OHSU School of Dentistry). Edgar was the son of the well-respected Eugene dentist William Edgar Buchanan, Sr., DDS, a 1906 graduate of the Kansas City Dental School who settled in Oregon around 1910. Buchanan Senior was no fan of acting; according to the Christens, he believed that "to choose a career in the theater was to settle for a life of mediocrity and uncertainty" and he discouraged his son's acting ambitions at every turn.

Nevertheless, young Edgar took courses in theater at the University of Oregon while a pre-med student, and appeared with Henry Duffy's Stock Company in Portland while studying at NPDC. He was involved in the founding of the Portland Civic Theatre, and finally left dental school to take a position in the drama department at UO. His father intervened and convinced Edgar to return to NPDC to complete his dental education. There, he fell in love with classmate Mildred Spence, and Edgar and his wife both graduated with degrees in 1928.

Moving back to Eugene, Edgar and his wife opened a private practice. From 1930-37, Edgar was chief of oral surgery at the Eugene Hospital Clinic, but managed to find time to hold a position as assistant director in the UO drama department and to found the city's Very Little Theatre. In 1939, the couple relocated to Pasadena, where Edgar finally got his big break when talent scouts saw his performance of a senator in Maxwell Anderson's "Both Your Houses."

The rest, as they say, is history. Edgar appeared in hundreds of films and television shows, and while he continued to provide emergency dental care on sets and attend the occasional continuing education course, he turned the family practice over to his wife Mildred. Edgar died in 1979.

[Image courtesy Wikipedia article on Edgar Buchanan)

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